Six stalwart UFTO company representatives and yours truly spent the entire day on May 8 at the National Renewable Energy Lab (NREL), in Golden CO.

NREL is the smallest of the DOE national labs, with just over 1000 staff, and an annual budget of $187 million (FY00).. It is also the only lab with a specifically defined mission to advance renewable energy technology. NREL has a number of special purpose facilities and programs in wind, solar (PV and thermal), biomass/bioenergy, hydrogen and advanced transportation vehicles.

One impression that struck us was the strong sense of purpose and commitment that the NREL staff bring to their work. They really seem motivated by a desire to make the world a better place.

In terms of technical content, it was a bit of a drink from a firehose. Each presenter managed in under an hour to encapsulate the state of the art, explain the context and importance, and indicate what NREL’s particular role is.

(Presentations are available for download from the UFTO website–client password required. To access the directory of all presentation files, go to:
Or click on the links below to download individual documents directly.)

Obviously, in this amount of time we were only beginning to scratch the surface–myriad information resources abound on the DOE, NREL and other websites and publications. Best of all, perhaps, was the opportunity to meet the people doing the work, and to be able to recontact them to dig deeper.

Discussions of context and importance reflected a familiar list of driving forces (climate, resources, population, poverty, etc.). Energy demand will grow substantially; oil and gas won’t last forever. Renewables are on a decades-long development cycle that most new technologies (e.g. oil) have experienced in the past. Their cost and performance characteristics are now beginning to reach a point where their use is increasingly entering the mainstream in a major way.

One idea that NREL has been talking about for a couple of years — if the 20th century was the fossil energy century, then perhaps the 21st will be the biological energy century, with “biorefineries” gradually taking the place of oil refineries to provide fuels, chemicals, and myriad other material feedstocks of the economy. It’s definitely a long-term vision, but one can cite several examples where this already happens, e.g. in a paper mill, trees become paper, energy and other products. Another is corn, which becomes ethanol, corn, and livestock feed.

NREL Overview (1.2 mb)
David Warner,
Lee Boughey,
Industry Liaison

Distributed Energy Resources and Hydrogen (820kb)
Tony Schaffhauser,
Director , Distributed Energy Resources Center

This group pursues the linkages of renewables and natural gas with national energy needs through distributed generation. They provide analysis tools, test facilities, resource assessment, and work on standards, codes, and regulatory/institutional issues.

Renewable Resource Data Center (RReDC) provides information on several types of renewable energy resources in the United States, in the form of publications, data, and maps. GIS integration enables overlay of related infrastructures, e.g. pipelines, roads, and transmission lines.

Solar Programs Overview (7mb)
John Benner,

PV Roadmap:

Some key take-aways:
– “Breakthroughs” are not necessary. PV is on track to become a major energy supply via gradual improvement. The range of cost-effective applications is rapidly expanding, with PV energy costing from 10-50¢/kwh. Over the last 20 years, prices have fallen 25% with each doubling of cumulative shipments.
– Silicon PV rides on the shoulders of the semiconductor industry, with all its materials, equipment and manufacturing technology (e.g. the progress from 6″ to 8″ to 12″ wafers). (NREL’s PV lab does research funded by IC companies!) Even amorphous silicon can draw from the flat panels industry. The various thin-film technologies have no such opportunity to leverage better established industry capabilities.
– Thin film, though less efficient, is cheaper, and can fill important niches such as building-integrated PV.
– US market share is dropping. Elsewhere in the world, interest, and government support is leading to faster growth. World wide production is over 400 MW/year.
– There are lots of myths to dispel. For example, some say that huge land areas are required. Answer: existing roofs are more than enough.

Superconductivity (2.8mb)
Richard Blaugher,
Technology Manager, Superconductivity Program

NREL is one six DOE labs that work in superconductivity (SC). The DOE website has a lot of information about the overall effort:
(note in particular “Library” and “Technology Status”)

There are two main thrusts: basic research into new materials and wire or ribbon fabrication methods, and develop superconducting electronic power devices, in collaboration with industry. Devices include transformers, cables, a motor, current limiter and a magnetic separator. (Fact sheets on each one are available under “The Partnership”.) Utilities are involved with several of these projects.

NREL’s own internal R&D includes development of new coating techniques to make HTSC ribbon. One method uses electrodeposition, and recently a dip-coating technique has set new records for current density.

See Blaugher’s excellent review article from 2000 Global Energy Prospects.doc (52kb)

Energy Analysis Overview (3.1mb)
Walter Short,

This group, along with counterparts throughout the lab, studies technology, policy and market issues to support decision making at the program level, lab management, and DOE headquarters. They develop models and tools and perform analyses such as life-cycle cost, technology choice, R&D program prioritization and review, etc.
The website has a lot of good material, including publications and even an online software tool for renewable energy cost estimation.

Enterprise Development Program (1.2mb) (word 300kb)

Marty Murphy,

This unique program supports innovators, recognizing the need for viable small companies as one of the principal mechanisms to carry new technologies forward to commercialization. The website offers an broad array of reference and other materials to help them with all aspects of their business, especially fundraising. Venture investment forums are held around the company. Over 200 companies have presented in past events. NREL has also been instrumental in establishing a new national alliance of incubators around the country which focus on clean energy.

Next event: The 15th NREL Industry Growth Forum
Oct. 29- 30, 2002 in Albany, NY.

Biofuels Overview (1.9mb)
Cindy Riley,
Process Development Leader
Biotechnology Division for Fuels and Chemicals

Ethanol from cellulosic biomass is a key goal of NREL’s. For thousands of years, ethanol has been made by fermentation of sugars and starches; most of today’s US ethanol is made from corn. Most biomass, however, consists of lignin and cellulosic material which has to be broken down first. Various combinations of acids and enzymes are used to convert the cellulose to sugars which then can be fermented. (Lignin remains, and once separated has uses of its own.)

The DOE website gives a good overview of the process:

NREL’s program includes engineering new enzymes and yeasts, process technology, a major test facility, resource analysis, and systems economics studies, with a goal to bring the production cost of bioethanol down to $1/gallon by 2010. Bioethanol, and many various potential coproducts, could be a major realization of the “biorefinery” vision.

Bioenergy Overview (5.3mb)
Rich Bain, Group Manager,
Chemistry for Bioenergy Systems

Following the ethanol story, bioenergy is a far broader topic. Noting there are hundreds of bio-based production facilities in the US already (which already produce over 6000 MW of power), this presentation reviewed many of the huge variety of opportunities within the biorefinery concept, from biodiesel to biopower and gasification at scales ranging from 15 kw to the 200 tons/day Battelle Gasifier.

Tour of the National Wind Test Center (2.4 mb)
Brian Smith, Turbine Program Development,,
Jim Johnson, Site Operations,,

As with solar, Europe leads the US by a wide margin in deployment of windpower, with a total installed capacity nearly four times ours. The economics of wind are steadily improving, and some very large companies are heavily committed. As DOE’s lead laboratory in wind technology development, NREL operates the National Wind Technology Center and manages turbine research programs and applied research activities.

We visited the Center, 30 minutes from NREL, and toured the facilities, which are available to wind turbine manufacturers for equipment test and evaluation.

NREL operates the only full-scale blade testing facility in the U.S. for MW-scale wind turbines. 35 meter length blades are pushed and pulled a million times to find their weak points. The full-system wind turbine drive train testing accommodates up to 2.5 MW turbines. A huge electric motor drive simulates the wind, pushing systems to their limit. This facility in the only one of its kind in the world. In addition, there is a strong gusty wind that comes through a notch in the mountains. This would make a poor production resource, but is an excellent testing environment, as it subjects systems to highly variable and difficult conditions. Full scale turbines of all sizes are installed at the site and monitored in detail. Our group actually got to up inside a 600 kw wind turbine– impressive to say the least, at 120 feet above the ground.

Distributed Energy Resources/Hybrid Test Facility (256kb)
Ben Kroposki,

This facility has a variety of distributed generation technologies, a grid simulator and load banks. It is used to test inverters and interconnection power electronic systems, especially those developed under the DOE Distributed Power Program. Recently, the mission has been expanded to do testing of standards, “testing the test” to see if proposed standards can be used in practice.

NRECA DG tools

Follow-up to this item from earlier UFTO Note:
UFTO Note – DOE Distributed Power Review 15 Feb 2002

— NRECA has an aggressive program to support its members to do fuel cell demonstrations, with training, handbooks, databases, and a users group. Coops view DG as “a solution, not as a problem”. Together coops represent the largest “single” utility in the country, with 34 million customers in 46 states. The handbook will be available on the DOE website in the near future, and many more resources are available only to members of NRECA.
Contact Ed Torrero, 703-907-5518,


From the DOE DER Update Newsletter for 10 May 02

Co-Ops Unveil Tool Kit For Interconnection

The National Rural Electric Cooperative Association (NRECA) has developed a collection of new business templates that will help local utilities harness the power of distributed generation. The NRECA tool kit will help utilities establish policies for the interconnection of DG units and assure the safe and reliable operation of the distribution system. “As interest in distributed generation grows, cop-ops must anticipate the effects that its application will have on their systems and the DG tool kit will help them prepare,” said NRECA CEO Glenn English. The project was co-funded by National Rural Utilities Cooperative Finance Corp. and Energy Co-Opportunity. The interconnection tool contains the following resources:

o A Business and Contract Guide for Interconnection to help cooperatives and their employees move smoothly through the interconnection process

o A DG Rates Manual to help each cooperative think through the issues required to design a rate that meets that cooperative’s specific goals; and Consumer Guidelines for Interconnection to educate consumers about the interconnection process

o A Technical Application Guide that provides rules of thumb that engineers at each cooperative can apply to develop detailed technical interconnection requirements that work for their system

o A Model Interconnection Application to be filled out by consumers interested in installing their own generation

o A Model Short Form Interconnection Contract for consumers installing small DG units with a capacity of 3 kW or less

The document “tool kit” is offered at no charge to interested parties and can be found at:

DER Update: Summary of DER-related news and events is published by DOE’s Office of Distributed Energy Resources every two weeks. – email subscription available.

Quite a few documents and online tools for DG are available here (but not sign yet of the NRECA materials):

Small scale Gas to Liquids (GTL)

First demonstrated over 80 years ago, GTL has a long and colorful history. It was a mainstay of the German and Japanese fuel supply in WW2. Governments, major oil companies, and new entrants have made substantial investments over the years. While limited commercial operations are in place, the technology hasn’t progressed enough to enable widespread economic use.

Blue Star Sustainable Technologies Corp. has developed a set of new catalytic processes to convert natural gas into clean liquid fuels, as a new variant on Fischer-Tropsch. Based on a number of innovations (pat. or pat pend.), Blue Star reduces costs by simplifying the GTL process and by making small-scale units that can be standardized and mass produced for use in gas fields throughout the world, rather than seeking economies through very large units.

A pilot unit (six barrels per day) has successfully demonstrated all of the process steps. The Company is now building a 10-barrel per day demonstration unit (Blue Star 10) to prove integrated system performance. Designed to operate in remote oil and gas field operations and other applications, the Blue Star 10-demonstration unit is to be located in Wyoming’s Powder River Basin gas field, where very large potential unit sales exist.

BlueStar’s approach is unlike any other player in the GTL industry, with their focus on volume sales of small-scale (10 to 500 BPD) plants. All the others do large scale facilities (10,000 to 100,000 barrels per day), and can produce only a synthetic crude oil which requires further refining.

Remarkably, the liquid fuel produced by Blue Star –in the field– will be suitable for immediate use in diesel engines. (Lab analyses show good properties, and the fuel is EPA registered; engine testing has yet to be done.) The company calls this “Direct Diesel”. Their units could serve numerous potential applications worldwide for small stranded gas fields, as just one example. Coal bed methane also looks like an attractive market possibility, not to mention the 3.7 TCF of gas that is flared around the world each year.

The Blue Star 10 is to be the Company’s first commercial product. It is skid mounted and designed to be transported to remote locations by truck. The Blue Star 10 converts approximately 200 MCFD of natural gas into 10 BPD (420 gallons per day) of a clean synthetic diesel. It also generates 300 kW of excess electricity (6,807 kWh per day). Industrial grade potable water and low temperature heat are the other byproducts of the process. The Blue Star 10 produces minimal toxic or noxious emissions.

These attributes are intended to open markets for applications where either: 1) electrical and fuel delivery infrastructures are not readily accessible; 2) power and fuel are expensive; or 3) there may be on-site uses for heat or water. Broader mandates for clean fuel emission standards are supportive of market development. In particular, the fuel produced by the Blue Star process contains essentially no sulfur, surpassing diesel fuel standards to take effect in 2006. The fuel also has improved combustion characteristics.

Blue Star will capitalize on proprietary catalyst, hardware and system concepts that provide competitive advantages for the development of small-scale GTL facilities. Interestingly, some of Blue Star’s key innovations do not lend themselves to application at large scale, with the important exception of the “direct diesel” capability. Licensing of technology is a distinct part of the company’s future plans.

The Company is also developing a mid-scale unit capable of producing 500 BPD of high-grade synthetic fuel from 5,000 MCFD of natural gas. At this size, the Blue Star 500 can deliver twice the liquid conversion efficiency of the Blue Star 10. The Blue Star 500 would be useful for converting stranded gas fields in the 50 to 100 BCF range in North America and other parts of the world to a high quality, clean and transportable fuel. Many fields with these characteristics are believed to exist worldwide. There are also numerous locations with fields of similar size where gas is currently flared or vented that provide market opportunities for both the Blue Star 10 and Blue Star 500 plants. While significantly larger, the Blue Star 500 is still substantially below the commercial scale targeted by competing companies in the GTL industry.

In Phase I, a prototype of the Blue Star 10 will be completed in 2002 and tested at an application site in 2003. Manufacturing engineering, marketing and business development activities to prepare the Company for commercial introduction of the Blue Star 10 will also be completed during Phase I of the business plan.

Following Phase I, the Company expects to proceed to commercial sales and distribution in Phase II. Manufacturing will be outsourced, possibly offshore and adjacent to international markets as sales volumes grow. A business scenario projecting Phase II performance has been developed. In this scenario, sales of the Blue Star 10 unit are projected to reach 200 units per year in 2008. The first Blue Star 500 unit is constructed in 2007.

The Company seeks a participant to fund a significant share of the next phase of its program (Phase I) covering a two year time period. The total cost of the Phase I program is $12 million. The size of the ownership share available and the structure of such participation are negotiable. Emex Corporation (EMEX-nasdaq) currently owns the Company, and is committed to continuing as an active investor. A business plan is available.

Contact: Nicholas Vanderborgh, President
Blue Star Sustainable Technologies Corp., Arvada, CO

[Text adapted from company materials with further discussions with management.]